Sunday, September 27, 2015

When in Rome, transform your perspective

Char and I have some crazy ideas when it comes to doing stuff for fun, and the three days we spent in Rome with her parents were no exception. (Here it is.) 

Question: What do you get when you drop two aspiring endurance athletes into the middle of ancient Rome?

Down the not-so-deserted streets of Rome we go!
Answer: An uncontrollable urge to recreate Abebe Bikila’s 1960 marathon victory.

Ok, so that wasn’t going to happen, but we did go for a run.

We’d spent the previous day walking some of the oldest and most renowned historical sites in Rome. Everywhere we went the streets were crowded with like-minded visitors and after a while it became routine to round a corner and see something ancient, snap some photos, and move on to the next one. The excitement waned, and boredom began to set in.

Maybe we were burned out, maybe we just needed to see the city from a different perspective.

Cheesy grins in front of the Roman Coliseum.
We woke up before sunrise, thinking that the streets would be empty and quiet and perfect for a quick scavenger hunt run past some of the most historic sites from the ancient, classic and renaissance world. Surprise! Cars, taxis, buses, scooters and motorcycles were already zooming along the streets, horns blaring and people bustling to get wherever they needed to be at 530 in the morning.

Double-checking directions on the map at Piazza Navona.

No worries, we padded off along the mixture of concrete and stone paved roads and sidewalks to the sites on our list that included Santa Maria Maggiore, the Coliseum, a huge memorial to Vittorio Emmanuelle II, Piazza Navona, the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River), Castello Sant’Angelo. (Ok, it was in the background when we got to the river, but come on! We were running out of time for breakfast!) We finished off the run with a sprint (sort of) up the Spanish Steps and drank in the view across the rooftops of Rome. In the distance, Saint Peter’s Basilica barely reached into the early morning rays of sunshine. (Later that day, we’d fully tour the Vatican museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peters, but it was a bit too far for our tight timeline that morning.)

Even with the early morning rush hour of traffic, the historical sites usually crawling with tourists were almost entirely empty leaving us free to appreciate them without the usual hectic multicultural fray. And being up early enough to watch the sun slowly illuminate the city, to watch the cloud of darkness peeled back to reveal aging stone, marble, and brick, was worth it.

Take the time, sacrifice a little comfort, and appreciate what’s around you like you’ve never seen it before. What you see and what you learn just might surprise you.

The Tiber River just before sunrise.
This wasn’t our first scavenger hunt run through historical sites. To read about our DC adventure, click here.

Spanish steps and Rome skyline just after sunrise.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Cow poop and bike grease

The story of how I got stuck in an Italian cattle drive and almost made it home.

I stood along the road, my bike in pieces at my feet, both of us covered in bike grease and cow manure, waiting for Char to come rescue me. I was two miles from home, and I quit.

Five hours ago, I had a simple mission. Ride to Turcio just outside Asiago, where I could get a well-deserved cafe and pastry, then head home in time to join Char and the in-laws for brunch. It had rained a little when I started the ride, but stopped before I had covered the 20 miles to the mountains. I stopped at the Chiesa della Madonna della Ciclista on the way up the mountain to pay my respects and for a quick clean bathroom and snack break and made great time up into the Dolomites.

Staring down at the town of Conco (Kunken in German) is always a great view. It's like a city up in the clouds on a rainy day, with the Veneto Po River Valley spread out far below it.
It was totally uneventful, and almost entirely devoid of other cyclists, which should have been my first clue that I probably didn’t want to be out on the road. When the birds in the forest stop chirping, you’re probably in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Four miles from Turcio I came across an Italian cattle drive. They had wagons, horses, an entire caravan of support vehicles, lots of guys walking with sticks and Alpini feathered hats, and even a massage table set up along the road where they were working over some of the cattle herders.

Italian cowboys!

But they were all off the road in the adjacent fields so I took a few pics and carried on my merry way.

On the way home, well, that’s when things got interesting.

Mandatory selfie with Italian cowboys and cowgirls. 
A few miles down the road I ran smack into the back end of the cattle drive that had taken over the entire road. Everything was covered in manure, and I tried unsuccessfully to weave between the worst piles of muck, passing cars and working my way along the convoy of cattle herding vehicles, polizia cars, trucks, tractors, wagons and horses before I found myself stuck staring at the butt end, literally, of a couple hundred head of cattle heading down the mountain switchbacks.

A horse drawn wagon, why not?
I followed another Italian cyclist, one of the very few on the road that morning, back up the mountain and he showed me a back road that looped and carved down the mountain to get us ahead of the herd.  As I followed him back onto the main road my bike began rattling frighteningly and I looked down to see my bike bottle cage rocking wildly against the frame. A few quick moments on the side of the road with my mini-tool and I was once again rocketing towards home.

Now I was really running late and pushing my already spent legs and lungs hard to beat my best times on a familiar route home. I was making good time and feeling great about the ride despite the persistent smell of cow dung on everything when I felt and heard the pop. The evil hiss that followed told me everything I needed to know, and my back tire even began to fishtail precariously.

Sometimes, when things start to go wrong, they keep getting worse.

Standing at the side of the road looking at the fibers pushing out from the gaping maw in my tire, and all the euphoria of the ride vanished. I started going through the familiar routine of removing the tire to put in a dollar-bill shim and new tube while texting Char that I was running even later when we both realized that I was only two miles from home. By the time I’d fix the bike, she’d be there with the Jeep to give me a lift and we were already so late for brunch that we were running the risk of missing it.

I started to put the wheel back on the frame so it would fit on the bike rack when my manual dexterity disappeared. I couldn’t get the wheel back on, the chain slipped off the front chainring, the front fork turned awkwardly and I very nearly found myself tumbling down into a ditch full of stagnant farm runoff.

And that’s how Charla found me, standing alongside the road in my disheveled kit, covered in cow manure and bike grease, reeking of dung and sweat, furious and exhausted and ready to throw my bike into oncoming traffic to end my misery.

This is the face of someone who has given up hope of doing anything useful.
I’m surprised she let me in the Jeep at all.

And that’s how a simple ride turned into a – wait for it – crappy adventure!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Climb

There's nothing better than throwing your body against something daunting, something that doesn't seem doable at first. Maybe that's why I keep looking for really long and tough climbs on the bike. 

Mt. Haleakala in Maui, the San Juan Scenic Skyway in Colorado, even the Stelvio Pass through the Italian and Swiss Alps. I'm afraid every time, but it's always worth it in the end.

Seriously, what does it take to get a decent burrito after a hard climb?